The recent OECD Survey of Adult Skills ranked England 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy skills out of 24 countries. England was also the only country in the survey where results are going backwards, with the older cohort better than the younger. Many agree that a sound vocational pathway in England remains elusive.
Tim Oates, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development, was joined by Professor Ewart Keep of University of Oxford, at a recent seminar hosted by the Cambridge Assessment Network to reflect on the current situation of vocational education and training (VET) and its relation to the labour market.
Speaking at the seminar, Tim expressed his concern that successive governments "have been stuck in a circle of recycling vocational education policy without really recognising the true reasons why previous policy has failed to push up volumes and quality…". Breaking the mould, policy must differentiate distinctive forms of provision: school-based VET; initial VET in a full time educational setting; employment-based VET for young entrants to the labour market; continuing VET for adult employed; and provision for unemployed adult workers. Tim’s statements drew on the analysis Cambridge Assessment has presented in ‘Towards a New VET’.
Professor Keep concurred with Tim’s ‘long view’ and looked beyond a narrow focus on qualifications, scheme content and funding: "Many of the problems we face in education and training generally, and with vocational qualifications specifically, are reflections of wider difficulties with wage systems and levels, recruitment and selection practices in particular sectors, low job quality and design and resultant levels of demand for skill, and progression opportunities particularly at the lower end of the market."
So what can be done?
According to Ewart, VET policy will work when we switch from supply side to demand side strategy. "Education and training can move people up and down the job queue, but of itself will struggle to create more and/or better jobs". He argued that certain forms of restriction – such as licence to practice – do not act as a deadweight on the economy, but provide essential incentives to learn and upskill.
"In addition, we need to have industrial strategy that supports product market, innovation and competitive strategies that drive rising demand for skills across the bulk of the economy and systems of work organisation, job design and employee relations that stress good skill utilisation and bottom-up innovation."